My cousin, sister, and I used to spend our middle school summers at my grandmother’s house in southern West Virginia. We spent the summers playing with the neighborhood kids, bickering as pubescent girls do, and pulling pranks on my Nanny. She was generally easy-going and fun, but we knew she did not play when it came to disrespectful mouths or doing anything that caused her to fear for our safety. We didn’t do anything TOO bad (although there was that one incident involving dropping bowling balls from a very high train trestle). When we did mess up, we knew there would be a price to pay. We (mostly) obeyed her rules to avoid having to face her when she was disappointed in us.
Fast forward to when I became a Christ-follower later in high school. I had this view of God that he was like an angrier version of my Nanny – He wanted me to do what He said and would not hesitate to hand out a punishment if I got out of line. I had grown up around the church. I had often heard the “church people” in my life say things like, “You can’t outrun God.” It was used in a variety of ways, but I internalized it as meaning God would get me if I didn’t follow His will or made poor life choices.
When I became a Christian, I was already familiar with the story of Jonah. It had been used in some of those “You can’t outrun God” lessons. Here’s how I interpreted it:
God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh. (God always tells you to do something that isn’t fun.)
Jonah refuses. (Uh-oh. God is gonna’ get him!)
God chases him down. (To hand out a punishment.)
He is thrown into the sea. (See? Punished.)
A whale swallows him. (Gross! You don’t want to end up in the belly of a fish! That’s weird!)
The whale throws him up onto the shores of Nineveh. (See, God will make sure you do what He told you to do.)
Jonah finally obeys. (God says, “I am the boss of you. Do what I say the first time.”)
As a new believer, I was appalled at Jonah. How could Jonah, someone who was supposed to be a prophet of the Lord, DO that? Why did God even ask HIM? I spent much of my early Christian walk focused on “doing right,” or worse, “being right” in order to avoid God’s punishment. Basically, I was your token legalist. I was emotionally exhausted and had very little joy. I had an incorrect view of God, and it was killing my soul.
Don’t get me wrong: the Bible is clear that God is our Judge. He is jealous for us and wants us to follow in His will. A lack of obedience to His way does bring about destruction in our lives.
But, that’s not all.
God is also a God of grace and mercy and love and acceptance for all who come to Him. In fact, that’s why He asked Jonah to go to Nineveh – to bring Gentiles the news that God wanted them to worship Him too! Yes, he could extend punishment to the people of Nineveh for their wicked ways, but He could (and would) extend mercy to them if they repented and turned to Him.
Jonah tried to flee, but he could not outrun God’s correction, mercy, and love. God could have asked anyone else to go to Nineveh. He didn’t need Jonah. He wanted Jonah to be involved in the redemption of Nineveh. When Jonah disobeyed, God could have just let him go. Or He could have ended the scene with Jonah drowning in the sea. But He didn’t.There was more.
Jonah wasn’t even surprised God pursued him. Jonah tried to get to Tarshish – at the literal other end of Jonah’s known world. As the sea raged, Jonah acknowledged that he knew the God who controlled the oceans. When the lot fell to him, he acknowledged they should pick him up and throw him overboard. Jonah 1:12 says, “I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” He knew God had come for him — and had given him a chance to take responsibility for his sin.
Then comes the fish. The merciful rescue. I imagine myself frantically trying not to drown as a punishment for my sin, and then thinking “Drowning isn’t bad enough, but now You’re sending a beast to eat me?!”
But again, Jonah doesn’t even seem surprised God rescued him by using a great fish. He just casually goes on with his story in verse 17, “But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.” Chapter 2 tells us that inside the fish, Jonah was praising God for rescuing him!!
Jonah knew that God had pursued him to show him mercy and rescue him, even after Jonah had done everything in his power to get as far from God as he physically could.
It’s the same for us, too. He’s there, even when we think we’re too far. None of us bought a ticket to Tarshish, but maybe we have an addiction, have committed adultery, yell at our children, misuse our money, idolize the approval of others, love to look at the world with judgmental, legalistic eyes, or harbor bitterness in our hearts. We can’t outrun His love, His mercy, or His redemption. He’s pursuing us now and always – even when we sneak out of our grandmother’s house to drop bowling balls from train trestles.